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Monday, March 02, 2009
Focus Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 This wasn't the first (or the last) time God and Abram had a conversation; in fact, the Book of Genesis is regularly punctuated with the words, "The Lord said to Abram…" It isn't even the first time that God "made a covenant" with Abram and promised him lots of descendants, as numerous as the stars in the night sky (15:5). Still, it must have been something of a balancing act for Abram. On the one hand, it had to be impressive to be seeing God, and actually hearing God's voice. Surely, that would never get old, and who among us doesn't yearn for such clarity? And yet, the things that God was saying to Abram during these visits really tested the limits of a person's imagination. Not just one child, but a multitude of descendants, for two people past ninety years of age? Could it possibly be true that old Sarah would not just produce one child but would "give rise to nations," to "kings of people"? It was one thing to be told to pull up stakes and leave Haran, to set out for a new home and a new future. However, the promise of a baby, at their age, made both Abraham and Sarah laugh. The lectionary reading this week stops just short of Abraham's response in verse 17: "Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed." Sarah wasn't around to hear directly from God about her impending pregnancy (or, for that matter, her name change), but we find out in the next chapter how she reacted when she finally got the news: "Sarah laughed to herself" (18:12). That's not all that the carefully chosen verses of the lectionary reading leave out: the rest of this 17th chapter tells us that the gift of "the land" is an important part of the promise, "for a perpetual holding," and then spends a good amount of time on the sign of this covenant, circumcision. W. Sibley Towner calls these three themes "relatively uncongenial to Christian readers and preachers": the promise of the land (which continues to be the source of great controversy today), circumcision (think of the struggle in the early church about its necessity), and finally, "doubt, manifested in laughter" (Feasting on the Word). Great ancestors in the faith don't doubt or question, right? There was of course an earlier covenant, the one between God and Noah, with a rainbow as its sign, a universal covenant that included not just all of humankind but all of creation, the living things that God had made. No more wholesale destruction, God promised, offering the earth and its inhabitants a future once again. But this covenant with Abraham is more focused; it applies to "the nations" that will descend from these two very old ancestors-to-be. (Later, the covenant will narrow even more, at Sinai, to include only Israel.) It helps us understand what's happening underneath this story if we think about how it was written. The Book of Genesis, scholars generally agree, brings together the work of several writers who in turn brought together ancient traditions about the origins of the people of God (which sheds light on why some things are repeated). Consider the narrative so far, as it went from the vastness of creation, separating light from dark, to the story of the beginning of all humankind, to this story of Abraham and Sarah. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are called the "Primeval Saga," the story of the human family in the earliest age. Today we might call these chapters the "prequel" to the story of the people of Israel, whose saga begins with Abraham and Sarah in Chapter 12. Scholars think that today's story was probably written by "The Priestly Writer," during the time of the exile in Babylon. It makes a world of difference to read the story through this lens. In the sixth century before Christ, the people of Israel were devastated by the destruction of their city and its temple, the center of their life, both political and religious (which were not separate). The leadership, the flower of their society, had been carried off to Babylon, and we couldn't blame the people of God for wondering just what had happened to the promises God made so long ago. Were they still valid? Did they still "count"? Yes, the Priestly Writer says, and listen now to the story one more time, about "the great originating promise" of the covenant God made so long (William Willimon, The Lectionary Commentary). Remember that God said that these promises were an "everlasting" covenant with the people, no matter what. "What do a people do," Willimon asks, "when they are strangers in a strange land, uprooted, aliens? One thing they do is remember, recall time past, lovingly reiterate the promises of God. All present evidence to the contrary, the Priestly writer insists that the covenant of God still holds. Israel, now persecuted and laid waste by the nations, is destined to be the family above all families, the nation before all nations." As we consider "the multitude of nations" that will descend from Abraham, it is poignant, as John H. Hayes reminds us, that the Priestly Writer "and his contemporaries have experienced persecution and destruction at the hand of some of those very nations" (Preaching through the Christian Year B). It is, of course, God who is at work in this story. It's God's initiative, and God's plan in motion. God is shaping a family, and commits to be at the heart of that family's story, to travel with that family when they wander and dwell with them when they reach their home. This covenant and its blessings aren't just for the sake of Israel, however, because God intends, through Israel, to restore all of humanity. But it starts here, with a man and woman who leave home and all that is familiar, including its security and its gods, to set out in response to the irresistible call of this "God Almighty." Thus begins a relationship, at times beautiful and at times troubled, between the children of Israel and their one God, whom they trust to be with them always. "Israel's commitment to absolute monotheism did not come about from philosophical reflection upon the being of God. Rather, it arose out of a vital and personal experience of God's presence and faithfulness" (Mark Husbands, Feasting on the Word). Names play an important role in this story, and not just for Sarah and Abraham. The different writers used different names for God throughout the Book of Genesis. In this text, God is El Shaddai, translated here as "God Almighty," but more accurately, Valerie Bridgeman Davis writes, as "God of the mountains," or "God with (many) breasts." Davis goes on: "This latter name, 'The Many-Breasted One', would be significant in this context, given that Sarah's breasts are dry from never having a child, and she and Abraham are about to be promised prolific progeny" (New Proclamation 2009). Undoubtedly there are good church people who would be scandalized to think of God as "The Many-Breasted One." However, Terence Fretheim suggests, "The community of faith must be open to new names for God, names that may be more congruent with the life experiences of people in new times and places" (Genesis, New Interpeter's Bible). Think of Hagar, for example, in the chapter before this one, lost out there in the wilderness and feeling forgotten, who dares to name God as "the One who sees me" (16:13). As always, Walter Brueggemann describes what is happening here with elegance and clarity: "In a massive self-announcement, God throws the awesome, inscrutable divine identity in the face of 'ninety-nine': 'I am God Almighty'. Enough said. There is nothing more elemental than God's good self, God's name, God's identity. It is enough to override the body-given despair of this old couple." Brueggemann goes on to describe God's "summons" to Abraham to live "completely devoted, in unqualified loyalty" to God. And then, "in a magisterial moment Abraham's name is changed, thereby signifying that Abraham now receives his life and his future only from the hand of God…the desperate one without an heir now receives a wondrous, limitless future of power and well-being." This future, Brueggemann says, embraces us today, "subsequent hearers" who participate in the transformation God promises: "Those barren at the beginning are fruitful at the end. Those abandoned have become cared for. Those displaced have become royal. Those alone have come to covenant" (Texts for Preaching Year B). A beautiful sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor on this text, "The Late Bloomer," makes Abraham and Sarah feel like people we know, and the covenant something that lives in our hearts, too. These two old people are not really typical heroes, and yet they live on and their memory is powerful today, and so is the covenant, for "one thing to know about a covenant is that it is a living thing, as surely as if it had a beating heart and blood flowing in its veins. Its life thrives on its revival, and every time it is uttered the promise is renewed." But it's difficult to keep believing the promise, "to live by it, day after day, to see it in the night sky and hear it in your name and see it again in your lover's eyes. It is a hard thing, to believe in a promise with no power to make it come true. Everything is in the future tense….And yet. What better way to live than in the grip of a promise, and a divine one at that?" (Gospel Medicine). We are early in Lent, a long way from Easter, whether the world wants to acknowledge that or not. Elsewhere, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that "We do not head straight to Easter from the spa or the shopping mall. Instead, we are invited to spend forty days examining the nature of our own covenant with God. Upon what does that relationship depend? What do we trust to give us life? What concrete practices allow us to become bodily involved with God?" (Feasting on the Word). Lent is a time for repentance, too, for facing the ways we are broken and have broken others and the world. The world may not like the word "sin," but it is very much marked by it, and so are our own lives. Still, the promises are everlasting, and God is with us, always, calling us to be God's people. Willimon asks, "Is it possible for there to be a family of God, gathered not the way the world gathers (by class, race, status, etc.) but rather by the promises of God?" (The Lectionary Commentary). When we hear about the tragic conflicts between and among the descendants of Abraham, we know that we have a long, long way to go toward that dream of God. That blessing lies out there, in the future. Barbara Brown Taylor's reflection on living in the meantime calls us "to live reverently, deliberately, and fully awake—that is what it means to live in the promise, where the wait itself is as rich as its end. All it takes are some regular reminders, because as long as the promise is renewed, the promise is alive, as vivid as a rainbow, as real as the million stars overhead" ("The Late Bloomer," Gospel Medicine). This is a family story, and it is poignant that the families descended from Abraham have struggled for centuries with each other, like so many family stories today. Still, the story of Abraham and Sarah can inspire hope in every family, every congregation, no matter what appearances may insist to the contrary. What unseen possibilities, beneath those appearances, can God use to produce marvelous and amazing results, a multitude of blessings for the entire human family? The lectionary has included the promise to Sarah, an important part of the story, but has omitted the verses about circumcision: "Any uncircumcised male…shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." Given the enormously significant issue in the early Christian community of whether or not to require circumcision of Gentile converts, this is an interesting omission today. How do you reconcile the competing claims of grace and the requirements of covenant? Abraham and Sarah were told to be "blameless," that is, completely loyal to God; perhaps that reminds us of Jesus' own words about being "pure of heart." Like the words of Micah, so simple and clear, about what the Lord requires ("Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God"), these requirements of Abraham by God sound simple: "Walk before me, and be blameless." What does it mean to you to "walk with God"? How do we experience ourselves as included in this covenant? Who else is included, perhaps in spite of our own expectations and desires? In what ways is God acting and initiating wonderful things, including surprising and seemingly impossible ones, in the life of our church today?


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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